My guest today is Paul Koudouraris, an author and photographer, well-known in the field of macabre art and art history. I have to say… this is one of the most colorful and unique authors I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. And next month he will be featured on a panel at Undead Con in NOLA. As another panelist at UC, I look forward to meeting him!
Please join me in welcoming Paul to the Guest Author Program!
If you are interested in participating in the program, you can submit here.
Paul Koudounaris. I *do* have a website, www.empiredelamort.com, although I will sheepishly admit that I have scarcely updated it for the last couple years—at this point it exists mostly just for people to track me down and send me unsolicited emails. There is a Facebook page that serves my books, www.facebook.com/empireofdeath, and I am operative on Instagram under the user name Hexenkult.
The Empire of Death (Thames and Hudson: 2011)—a history in photos and text of predominantly Catholic ossuaries and religious sanctuaries decorated in human bone. Heavenly Bodies (Thames and Hudson: 2013)—the often perplexing history in photos and text of Baroque-era jeweled skeletons/ Frothcoming (it’s in the can but they are holding it until next year, again with Thames and Hudson): Memento Mori, a coffee-table type art book documenting the use of human remains in sacred contexts from around the globe.
I’ve recently become obsessed with pet cemeteries and our relationship as humans to animal mortality. Despite the profound attachment we have to companion animals and the meaning they hold in our lives, as a culture we have never developed any means or ritual to properly say goodbye to them. This leaves everyone to express grief in their own terms, rather than through a rhetorical language. I have no interest in writing a guide for grieving pet owners—there are already plenty of those. But I would like to put together something with the presence and presentation of a fine art book, which looks at different and poignant animal memorials from around the world. I have already shot photos across Europe, Asia, and of course the USA.
4. What does writing preparation look like for you? Do you do full outlines and character profiles, or do you just start with a general idea and write?
Well, it’s going to be quite different for me since I don’t write fiction and I am also a photographer—so my books are nonfiction, and will always be heavily pictorial, relying on images to tell parts of the story. The images are fundamental so unlike most writers I tend to chart out from the outset what I can get access to photograph, and then build the text around the images so that they can work together. For those not familiar with what I do, it basically amounts to macabre art history, and much of what I have worked on is sacred—there were times when I needed to get approval from no less than the Vatican to get into some of these places, so I need to be aware from the outset of what I can actually get access to and then get photos of. I need to figure that out early in the process so that I am not wasting my time researching something I can’t fit into the book
I honestly don’t consider editing a challenge at all. I consider myself to be an abysmal first draft writer, but a very good second draft writer. So I stopped quite some time ago trying to come up with a great first draft—I don’t sweat it if the first draft sounds like garbage, because I know I will fix it the next time through. This goes not just for the books, but also magazine articles, anything else I write. At this point, I just get anything down on paper no matter how bad it is, so I can edit through it and make it work. So my advice to other writers is just get something down, no matter how bad it is, because you can always fix it later. You can’t fix it if you don’t write it down—so just write out something, anything, and put your effort into rewriting and editing. I don’t find that to be a painful stage.
6. Research is another challenge writers face, but is an important part of the writing process. What are some of your research tips?
Well again, I write nonfiction that is based in history, so I spend a tremendous amount of time researching. I am doing it everyday, sometimes all day. Tips? I guess my main tip would be to learn how to differentiate a good source from a bad one. Some people seem to have a very hard time with that—discriminate and look critically at your sources. That’s the one thing that going through grad school did for me—I have a PhD in Art History, and to be honest that was mostly a waste of time, but it did really train me to look critically and differentiate good from bad sources.
My publisher has publicists in both their New York and London offices. In theory that’s great, but it often doesn’t amount to much. Well, the publicist in London is very good actually, but the ones in the New York office never seemed to do much. True story here . . . OK, I write and photograph books about extremely macabre visual culture. When the first one came out I asked the publicist in NY about places that might be good to set up book events in San Francisco—I live in LA, and I had a full gallery show here of the images, talks at some great places, all of which I set up myself, but I wanted some help and referrals getting the same thing going in SF. The publicist actually got back to me and said, “well, we can’t come up with anything in San Francisco, maybe that’s just not a good town for this type of material.” OK, if you’re familiar with my material that’s one of the most puzzling comments you’ll ever hear, and if you’re not familiar with my material, trust me, if San Francisco isn’t a good town for it, well then you might as well throw all the books in the trash because in that case there is no good town. The next time I was in SF, I wound up going into all the places I suspected would be appropriate for the material and introduced myself–:Loved to Death had already knew about the book and had ordered it and was more than happy to work on book events with me. Ditto for the Bone Room and some others. In the end, SF turned out to be the best market of all for me, as I had suspected it would. So you’re kind of your own best publicist, and that has been impressed on me time and again—unless you’re with a huge publishing house that is assigning someone who truly knows what they’re doing to your book, you’re your own best publicist. At one point, I had even invented a fake publicist to send emails and press releases out for me. The New York office was furious about this. They demanded that I stop pretending to be this fake person. I never actually did though—that non-existent publicist has gotten more and better press for me than the real publicists in New York ever did.
I mentioned previously that it amounts to macabre art history, and heavily photographic. As I said, the main challenge is to figure out from the outset what I am going to get access to photograph, because the text and the images have to work together. It doesn’t mean that if I am not allowed to photograph something, it won’t be in the book—but it can’t be in the foreground. The people who buy my books are buying them as much for the photos as the text, they really need to work together, so I can’t have giant photos of something accompanied by only a couple words of text, or a whole chapter about something I can’t show to the reader.
I made the decision before I started writing Empire of Death to get myself overall into better shape as a writer by doing several magazine and newspaper articles about my subject matter—I would take anything, even for free, just to work through the material and get my head around dealing with other peoples’ deadlines and word counts. The material was ossuaries and bone-decorated religious sanctuaries, so I was writing for goth culture magazine, travel magazines, history magazines, local newspapers in various towns in Europe. Basically, anyone who might want an article about the fascinating history of some obscure charnel house. It helped me a lot, because by the time I started writing the text for the book much of the material had already been broken down and I had a great sense of what to do with it.
I mentioned that I have one in the can. The proofs have already been approved. It won’t be out until March of next year in Europe and April of next year in the USA, but it’s out of my hands now. So with the last couple months of this year, I will probably look further into researching and photographing this pet cemetery project—everywhere I go know, I am snooping around for unusual pet cemeteries, with the emphasis on unusual.
11. Pretend I am from a publishing house and you are looking for me to take on one of your books. Pitch it to me in 1-2 paragraphs.
That’s a funny question to ask me—the truth is that I have never pitched a book. So how is it that I have two out with a very reputable publisher and a third on the press? Everyone kept telling me how you had to do this—the way you had to pitch something, or you had to use an agent. I really hate that kind of thing, those types of formalities. So when I was ready to write Empire of Death I decided to just give it a shot my own way. I took some of the best photos I had for the project, printed them up, and sent them out with a cover letter. I selected only a couple houses, because when I looked at it realistically there were only a couple houses that could take on a project like that and do it the way I wanted it done, make it look the way I wanted it to look. One of those letters went to Thames and Hudson in London. Like I said, it wasn’t even a pitch—it was a set of photos and brief cover letter explaining who I was and what I was doing. That is *not* supposed to work—but it did. A couple weeks later I got an email from a commissioning editor saying he wanted to talk. We exchanged a couple emails and he offered me a contract. For the next one, Heavenly Bodies, the photos were extremely strong and I knew it—I basically sent him five photos with a note telling him to that I intended to write a book about these jeweled skeletons, and to give me a contract. He did. The third one was a little more complicated because a commissioning editor from another company had tracked me down and told me she wanted my next project if it was in the same genre. So the whole thing involved some fighting and screaming and yelling back and forth between the two companies, but in the end I took it back to Thames and Hudson—but I never officially “pitched” that one, either. So I take some perverse pride in saying that I can’t really answer the question.